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Becoming aware of John Marin 

The Arts Center unveils its collection.

John Marin's watercolors are so atmospheric that if you have only seen them online or even in a book, they might seem a bit insubstantial, lacking in punch. But thanks to two years of work, both in the conservation of the Arkansas Arts Center's collection of works on paper by the artist and because of painstaking research into the artist, the exhibition "Becoming John Marin: Modernist at Work" that opened Friday at the Arts Center shows these modernist works to be as powerful as they are ethereal.

In 2008, Norma B. Marin, the artist's daughter-in-law, promised a gift of 290 works on paper owned by the family to the Arts Center. (She approached the Arts Center at the suggestion of curators at the National Gallery, which received more than 900 prints and drawings.) The promise became reality in 2013, and a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, the Windgate Charitable Foundation and private donors allowed the Arts Center to conserve the drawings and watercolors. The Windgate Foundation also made it possible for the Arts Center to hire curator of drawings Ann Prentice Wagner, whose scholarly research on George O'Keeffe and the Steiglitz group of artists made her a perfect person to put together "Becoming John Marin."

Wagner selected 79 works, including a newly acquired Marin, for this exhibit and managed to obtain the loans of 33 significant Marin drawings, paintings and etchings from the National Gallery of Art, the Metropolitan Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art (which has the country's largest collection of Marin etchings), Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and other major collections to add to the show. This is not a small, breeze-through show. It fills both the Jeannette Rockefeller and Townsend Wolfe galleries with works created between 1888 and 1952. Fortunately, it's free, so one can return time and again to soak it all in.

It is surprising to recall that modernism was the metier of artists born in the 1800s. Marin was born in New Jersey in 1870; there are two little watercolors in the show that he made as an 18-year-old. And though these works clearly intimate the artist he would become, he was not "an early bloomer" on the American art scene, Wagner said. Marin spent his 20s and 30s drawing and studying architecture and art; he moved to Paris at age 35, selling etchings to tourists but still unsure of his career. It was there that photographer and painter Edward Steichen saw his work and decided to arrange a one-man show at the New York gallery 291, founded by photographer Alfred Stieglitz, in 1909. Four years later, Marin's work was chosen for the famed Armory Show of 1913, credited with introducing European modernism to America with such works as cubist Marcel Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase" and impressionist Henri Matisse's "Blue Nude." Cubism began to insinuate itself into Marin's (and everyone else's) work, combining with the artist's own passion for movement, rhythm and line.

In "Becoming John Marin" we see finely rendered city buildings, such as St. Paul's Chapel in lower Manhattan, devolve into sketchy, animated foregrounds; quirky pink nudes against a Cubist sea; gestural landscapes; lines drawn in the dark of the circus tent capturing the action of aerialists. Sketches of bears and lions at the Central Park Zoo, a painting of a dead bear. Portraits of his Maine neighbor. A roiling sea that recalls Japanese art; jittery images that recall the work of his contemporary, Charles Burchfield. Marin's palettes are sometimes brilliant, sometimes subdued, his color applied both in washes and opaque, but untamed, oil. Marin became draftsman, painter, architect, abstractionist and modern master, and the proof is in this show.

Marin's modernist eye saw the abstract form of nature — trees, water, the shore of Maine, the Ramapo Mountains of New Jersey — and suggested solid forms with a stroke of color, pine needles with smudges, the New York skyline as a swath of purple haze, the churn of a boat's wake with unpainted white space.

Marin's many drawings and paintings of buildings, both as background to the bustle of humanity and nature and as characters in and of themselves, surely was underpinned by his architectural understanding. The Metropolitan Museum's "Municipal Building, New York," one of his several iterations of the construction of the 40-story building at 1 Centre St., is one of the tremendous loans on exhibit. It's accompanied by sketches of the building; Wagner said Marin made sketch after sketch until he internalized the building, then returned to the studio to translate the image into watercolor. The standout etching — perhaps the star of the show to those who love printmaking — is the Philadelphia Museum of Art's "Woolworth Building, No. 1." The building sways heavenward in a sky of curving parallel lines; a wash of gray and dark smudges made by the artist's fingerprints mark the foreground.

In "Woolworth Building, No. 1," Marin makes motion with deft line; in the ethereal "Middle Atlantic," a painting made from onboard ship, watery brushstrokes and white space create the roll of the waves. More substantial are the marks in "Grain Elevator" (1910-15) from Marin's Weekhawken series. The oil, on loan from Crystal Bridges, forges a landscape from triangles and dots of white, a swath of red ochre, orange rectangles in the background and teal shadowing: It's a beauty, as is the more ephemeral "Cape Split in a Smokey Sou'-Wester" (1937), a storm off the Maine cost rendered in blue-gray streaks, black shapes and fine charcoal lines. Like "Middle Atlantic," "Cape Split" is one of the stars of the Arts Center's collection on exhibit, along with "Small Point, Maine" (1920), a watercolor of a cheery evergreen rising from an abstracted foreground in red; the landscape "Ramapo Mountains," a composition of a distant meadow made with deft marks of green on green; the unfinished watercolor "Woolworth Building Under Construction" (1912); and the graphite "Untitled (Woolworth Building)" (1912-13), in which the faint outline of the building rises above a jazzy jumble of smaller buildings.

Taking a technological leap, the Arts Center has installed "beacons" by certain of the works that viewers can access with the free smartphone app BeaconSage for greater depth of information. The beacon requires no searching; the app detects it when the viewer approaches the work. The Arts Center has also created a website, becomingjohmarin.org, that offers more information on the artist, including a timeline and a map of places where he painted.

Wagner has edited a collection of essays about Marin in the book "Becoming John Marin: Modernist at Work," published by the University of Arkansas Press. The book, which includes 300 illustrations in its 430 pages, has gone to press and will be available soon for $50.

The exhibition runs through April 22.

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